While defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been far from awful in 2014, he and his No. 48 team have not quite been on their usual, world-beating form.
That made today’s Chase elimination race at Dover International Speedway important for Johnson in the eyes of some observers.
Johnson was likely to advance to the Contender Round fairly easily, but said observers wanted to see if he would make a statement on a track where he’s won nine Sprint Cup races in his career.
Johnson finished third today behind winner Jeff Gordon and runner-up Brad Keselowski in a steady performance. At the same time, he did not lead a lap at Dover for the first time since 2007.
So should we still be worried about Johnson? That’s probably just going to be our question to answer.
As for Johnson himself, he’s just glad to be moving on after finishes of 12th, fifth, and third in the opening Challenger Round.
“These first three races went pretty well,” Johnson said. “I think Chicago was probably the track where we left the most points on the table. Today, we kind of ran, finished where we ran, but we had a decent car – really strong on the long runs but just would lose too much time to make up the deficit that I had there.
“Good solid day today, happy to advance.”
But now comes the aforementioned Contender Round, which begins next weekend at Kansas, continues on to Charlotte, and ends with the mother of all wild cards at Talladega.
Obviously, nobody wants to be forced into a win or (metaphorically) go home situation heading into the ‘Dega crapshoot.
“If I’m one of the guys that wins at Charlotte or Kansas, it’s sure going to make the race at Talladega fun,” Johnson mused about the next three stops on the Chase. “Otherwise, you’re just going to be on pins and needles and stressing like crazy.
“That’s the strategy, really – try to win one of those first two so you can go to Talladega, pull them tight and let it rip.”
A win at Kansas or Charlotte would not only save him from that stress and push him to the Eliminator Round. It would also further legitimize his bid for a record-tying seventh Cup championship.
But as usual, Johnson and Team 48 won’t look too far ahead and will be taking things one step at a time.